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A mother goddess is a term used to refer to any goddess associated with motherhood, fertility, creation or the bountiful embodiment of the Earth. When equated with the Earth or the natural world such goddesses are sometimes referred to as Mother Earth or as the Earth Mother.
There have been many different mother goddesses throughout history and in the present day, including such deities as the Hindu Kali Ma, ancient Greek Gaia and ancient Irish Danu. In some forms of Neopaganism, and in the Hindu idea of Shakti, all the many mother goddesses are viewed as being the embodiment of one singular deity.
Clearly, deities fitting the modern conception of the "Mother Goddesses" as a type have been revered in many societies through to modern times. James Frazer (author of The Golden Bough) and those he influenced (such as Robert Graves and Marija Gimbutas) advanced the theory that all worship in Europe and the Aegean that involved any kind of mother goddess had originated in Pre-Indo-European neolithic matriarchies, and that their diverse goddesses were equivalent or derived from that concept.
Although the type has been well accepted as a useful category for mythography, the idea that all such goddesses were believed in ancient times to be interchangeable has been countered in 1968 by archaeologist Peter Ucko, who proposes instead that the many images found in graves and archaeological sites of these ancient cultures were toys.
Several small, corpulent figures have been found during archaeological excavations of the Upper Paleolithic, the Venus of Willendorf, perhaps, being the most famous. It is estimated to have been carved 24,000–22,000 BCE. Some archaeologists believe they were intended to represent goddesses, while others believe that they could have served some other purpose. These figurines predate the available records of the goddesses listed below as examples by many thousands of years, so although they seem to conform to the same generic type, it is not clear whether they, indeed, were representations of a goddess or that, if they are, there was any continuity of religion that connects them with Middle Eastern and Classical deities.
The Paleolithic period extends from 2.5 million years ago to the introduction of agriculture around 10,000 BCE. Archaeological evidence indicates that humans migrated to the Western Hemisphere before the end of the Paleolithic. It is the prehistoric era distinguished by the development of stone tools, and covers the greatest portion of humanity's time on Earth.
Diverse images of what are believed to be Mother Goddesses also have been discovered that date from the Neolithic period, the New Stone Age, which ranges from approximately 10,000 BCE when the use of wild cereals led to the beginning of farming, and eventually, to agriculture. The end of this Neolithic period is characterized by the introduction of metal tools as the skill appeared to spread from one culture to another, or arise independently as a new phase in an existing tool culture, and eventually became widespread among humans. Regional differences in the development of this stage of tool development are quite varied. In other parts of the world, such as Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, independent domestication events led to their own regionally-and distinctive Neolithic cultures arose independently in Europe and Southwest Asia. During this time, native cultures appear in the Western Hemisphere, arising out of older traditions that were carried during migration. Regular seasonal occupation or permanent settlements begin to be seen in excavations. Herding and keeping of cattle, goats, sheep, and pigs is evidenced along with the presence of dogs.
Almost without exception, images of what are interpreted as Mother Goddesses have been discovered in all of these cultures.
Gozo Mother Goddess
The oldest standing temple in Gozo is called Ggantija, which in Maltese is referred to as the Giant Lady. Such attributes are linked to males, not females. There was probably a huge sculpture of the Mother Goddess statue at this temple in Xaghra, which was destroyed by the Knights of St John to build walls in the surrounding area. Luckily, a large 4 metre high statue of the Mother Goddess (Ggantija) with a lion-shaped head still survives today in Qala in Gozo. Under this statue is a square hole which is around 1 metre high, 0.5 metres wide, 3 metres deep, and tapered. During the summer solstice, this hole lights up with the rising sun. About 50 meters to the east, there is a sculpted statue of sleeping baby face up, pointing to the Mother Goddess; 50 meters to the northeast, there is a phallus. All of them form a triangle. The area is dotted with huge perfect triangular boulders. In the broken-down temple of the Mother Goddess, Gozitans placed small statues of the Christian Mother Goddess and frequently visit this holy place. For non-locals, it is advised to hire a guide due to the rough terrain.
Examples of the mother goddess type of deity
There is no dispute that many ancient cultures worshipped female deities who match the modern conception of a "mother goddess" as part of their pantheons. The following are examples.
Mother goddesses are present in the earliest images discovered among the archaeological finds in Ancient Egypt. One figure of a deity, depicted standing between two lionesses, exists among those on one of the earliest paintings found among the Naqada Culture.
An association with animals seen as good mothers—the lioness, cow, hippopotamus, white vulture, cobra, scorpion, and cat—as well as the life-giving primordial waters, the sun, and the night sky and the earth herself—is drawn to the early goddesses of Egypt.
Even through the transition to a paired pantheon of male deities matched or "married" to each goddess, reached a later male deity dominated pantheon that arose much later, the mother goddesses persisted into historical times (such as Hathor and Isis). Advice from the oracles associated with these goddesses guided the rulers of Egypt and the tradition spread to other ancient cultures.
The image of Isis nursing her son was worshipped into the sixth century A.D. and has been resurrected by contemporary "cults" of an Earth Mother. Some suggest[who?] that the reverence for the mother of Jesus took the place of the worship of Isis that could not be suppressed, including incorporating the imagery associated with Hathor-Isis from three thousand years before Christianity.
Sumerian, Mesopotamian, and Greek
Anatolia - Çatalhöyük
In Anatolia, the Neolithic settlement from 7500 BC, Çatalhöyük, was at first thought to have provided evidence of worship of a mother goddess. A striking feature of Çatalhöyük are its female figurines. James Mellaart, the original excavator, argued that these well-formed, carefully made figurines, carved and molded from marble, blue and brown limestone, schist, calcite, basalt, alabaster, and clay, represented a female deity of the Great Goddess type. Although a male deity existed as well, “…statues of a female deity far outnumber those of the male deity, who moreover, does not appear to be represented at all after Level VI”. To date, eighteen levels have been identified. These careful figurines were found primarily in areas Mellaart believed to be shrines. One, however – a stately goddess seated on a throne flanked by two female lions – was found in a grain bin, which Mellaart suggests might have been a means of ensuring the harvest or protecting the food supply.
Whereas Mellaart excavated nearly two hundred buildings in four seasons, the current excavator, Ian Hodder, spent an entire season excavating one building alone. Hodder and his team, in 2004 and 2005, began to believe that the patterns suggested by Mellaart were false. They found one similar figurine, but the vast majority did not imitate the Mother Goddess style that Mellaart suggested. Instead of a Mother Goddess culture, Hodder points out that the site gives little indication of a matriarchy or patriarchy.
There are full breasts on which the hands rest, and the stomach is extended in the central part…. As one turns the figurine around one notices that the arms are very thin, and then on the back of the figurine one sees a depiction of either a skeleton or the bones of a very thin and depleted human. The ribs and vertebrae are clear, as are the scapulae and the main pelvic bones…. [T]his is a unique piece that may force us to change our views of the nature of Catalhoyuk society and imagery.
In an article in the Turkish Daily News Hodder is reported as denying that Çatalhöyük was a matriarchal society and quoted as saying "When we look at what they eat and drink and at their social statues, we see that men and women had the same social status. There was a balance of power. Another example is the skulls found. If one's social status was of high importance in Çatalhöyük, the body and head were separated after death. The number of female and male skulls found during the excavations is almost equal."
In a report in September 2009 on the discovery of around 2000 figurines Hodder is quoted as saying:
“Çatalhöyük was excavated in the 1960s in a methodical way, but not using the full range of natural science techniques that are available to us today. Sir James Mellaart who excavated the site in the 1960s came up with all sorts of ideas about the way the site was organised and how it was lived in and so on,” he said. “We’ve now started working there since the mid 1990s and come up with very different ideas about the site. One of the most obvious examples of that is that Çatalhöyük is perhaps best known for the idea of the mother goddess. But our work more recently has tended to show that in fact there is very little evidence of a mother goddess and very little evidence of some sort of female-based matriarchy. That’s just one of the many myths that the modern scientific work is undermining.”
Another archaeologist, Lynn Meskell, explained that while the original excavations had found only 200 figures, the new excavations had uncovered 2000 figurines of which most were animals, with less than 5% of the figurines women.
From 5500 to 2750 B.C the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture flourished in the region of modern-day Romania, Moldova, and southwestern Ukraine, leaving behind ruins of settlements of up to 15,000 residents who practiced agriculture, domesticated livestock, and many ceramic remains of pottery and clay figurines. Some of these figurines appear to represent the mother goddess (see images in this article).
The Minoan goddess represented in seals and other remains, whom Greeks called Potnia theron, "Mistress of the Animals", many of whose attributes were later also absorbed by Artemis, seems to have been a mother goddess type, for in some representations she suckles the animals that she holds.
The archaic local goddess worshiped at Ephesus, whose cult statue was adorned with necklaces and stomachers hung with rounded protuberances who was later also identified by Hellenes with Artemis, was probably also a mother goddess.
The Anna Perenna Festival of the Greeks and Romans for the New Year, around March 15, near the Vernal Equinox, may have been a mother goddess festival. Since the Sun is considered the source of life and food, this festival was also equated with the Mother Goddess.
Aphrodite's counterpart in Roman mythology, Venus, eventually was adopted as a Mother Goddess figure. She was seen as the mother of the Roman people, being the mother of Rome's ancestor, Aeneas, and the ancestor of all subsequent Roman rulers, and by the time of Julius Caesar's era, she was dubbed "Venus Genetrix" (Mother Venus).
Magna Dea is Latin for "Great Goddess" and may refer to any major goddess worshipped during the Roman Republic or Roman Empire. Magna Dea could be applied to a goddess at the head of a pantheon, such as Juno or Minerva, or a goddess worshipped monotheistically. Juno may have origins in the Etruscan mother goddess deity as well, whose identity merged with the Roman goddess later.
The Irish goddess Anu, sometimes known as Danu, has an impact as a mother goddess, judging from the Dá Chích Anann near Killarney, County Kerry. Irish literature names the last and most favored generation of deities as "the people of Danu" (Tuatha de Danann).
In the 1st century BC, Tacitus recorded rites amongst the Germanic tribes focused on the female goddess Nerthus, whom he calls Terra Mater, 'Mother Earth'. Prominent in these rites was the procession of the goddess in a wheeled vehicle through the countryside. Among the seven or eight tribes said to worship her, Tacitus lists the Anglii and the Longobardi.
Among the later Anglo-Saxons, a Christianized charm known as Æcerbot survives from records from the 10th century. The charm involves a procession through the fields while calling upon the Christian God for a good harvest, invokes 'eorþan modor' (Earth Mother) and 'folde, fira modor,' (Earth, mother of men).
In Central Germany, legends regarding Frau Holle are recorded throughout the Middle Ages. She appears as a helpful goddess, in charge of spinning and household affairs. She rides through the countryside during the Twelve-nights, sometimes asking local peasants for assistance repairing her wagon. Those who help are rewarded with woodchips or dung, which they soon discover turns to gold. Among her many names are Holda, Berchta, Perht, and Frekka, the last of which directly connects her to Odin's wife Frigg. Many German harvest customs surround both Odin (Wotan, Godan, Wold) and Frau Holle. In several German legends, she is known as Frau Goden, and connected to the Wild Hunt. Goden is simply another name for Odin, again indicating that Frau Holle is most likely a remembrance of Odin's wife, Frigg. In Snorri Sturlusson's Prose Edda, a handbook on poetry written more than two centuries after the Christian conversion of Iceland, Earth and Frigg, however, are presented as independent entities.
In skaldic poetry, the kenning "Odin's wife" is a common designation for the Earth. Bynames of the Earth in Icelandic poetry include Jörð, Fjörgyn, Hlóðyn and Hlín. Hlín is used as a byname of both Jörð and Frigg. Fjörgynn (a masculine form of Fjörgyn) is said to be Frigg's father, while the name Hlóðyn is most commonly linked to Frau Holle, as well as to a goddess, Hludana, whose name is found eteched in several votive inscriptions from the Roman era.
Connections have been proposed between the figure of Nerthus and various figures (particularly figures counted amongst the Vanir) recorded in 13th century Icelandic records of Norse mythology, including Frigg. Due to potential etymological connections, the Norse god Njörðr has been proposed as the consort of Nerthus. In the Poetic Edda poem Lokasenna, Njörðr is said to have fathered his famous children by his own sister. This sister remains unnamed.
Due to specific terms used to describe the figure of Grendel's mother from the poem Beowulf, some scholars have proposed that the figure of Grendel's mother, like the poem itself, may have derived from earlier traditions originating from Germanic paganism.
Umai, also known as Ymai or Mai, is the mother goddess of the Turkic Siberians. She is depicted as having sixty golden tresses, that resemble the rays of the sun. She is thought to have once been identical with Ot of the Mongols.
Durga represents the empowering and protective nature of motherhood. An incarnation of Durga is Kali, who came from her forehead during war (as a means of defeating Durga's enemy, Mahishasura). Durga and her incarnations are particularly worshipped in Bengal.
Today, Devi is seen in manifold forms, all representing the creative force in the world, as Maya and prakriti, the force that galvanizes the divine ground of existence into self-projection as the cosmos. She is not merely the Earth, although even this perspective is covered by Parvati (Durga's previous incarnation).
All of the various Hindu female entities are seen as forming many faces of the same female Divinity. However mother and nursing child imagery has been found in Hindu art, namely the depiction of Yashoda and Krishna.
In Sanskrit there is the term Yaganmatri for Mother of the Universe.
This form of Hinduism, known as Shaktism, is strongly associated with Vedanta, Samkhya, and Tantra Hindu philosophies and is ultimately monist, although there is a rich tradition of Bhakti yoga associated with it. The feminine energy, Shakti, is considered to be the motive force behind all action and existence in the phenomenal cosmos in Hinduism. The cosmos itself is Brahman, the concept of the unchanging, infinite, immanent, and transcendent reality that is the Divine Ground of all being, the "world soul".
Masculine potentiality is actualized by feminine dynamism, embodied in multitudinous goddesses who are ultimately reconciled in one.
The keystone text is the Devi Mahatmya which combines earlier Vedic theologies, emergent Upanishadic philosophies and developing tantric cultures in a laudatory exegesis of Shakti religion. Demons of ego, ignorance, and desire bind the soul in maya (illusion) (also alternately ethereal or embodied) and it is Mother Maya, Shakti, herself, who can free the bonded individual. The immanent Mother, Devi, is for this reason focused on with intensity, love, and self-dissolving concentration in an effort to focus the shakta (as a Shakti worshipper is sometimes known) on the true reality underlying time, space, and causation, thus freeing one from karmic cyclism.
Some Christians regard Mary, the Theotokos (or Mother of God) for many believers, as a "spiritual mother," since she not only fulfills a maternal role, but is often viewed as a protective and intercessory force, a divinely established mediator for humanity, but she is not worshiped as a divine "mother goddess". The Roman Catholic, Anglo Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox churches identify "the woman" described in Revelation 12 as the Virgin Mary because in verse 5 this woman is said to have given "birth to a son, a male child, destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod" whom they identify as Jesus Christ. Then, in verse 17 of Revelation 12, the Bible describes "the rest of her offspring" as "those who keep God's commandments and bear witness to Jesus." These Christians believe themselves to be the other "offspring" because they try to "keep God's commandments and bear witness to Jesus," and thus they embrace Mary as their "mother". They also cite John 19:26-27 where Jesus entrusts his mother to the Apostle John as evidence that Mary is the mother of all Christians, taking the command "behold your mother" to apply generally.
The Virgin Mary receives many titles in Catholicism, such as Queen of Heaven and Star of the Sea, that are familiar from earlier Near Eastern traditions. Due to this correlation, some Protestants often accuse Catholics of viewing Mary as a goddess, but the Catholic Church always has condemned "worship" of the Virgin Mary. Part of this accusation is due to the Catholic practice of prayer as a means of communication rather than as a means of worship. Catholics believe that the dead who followed their God, have eternal life and can hear prayers in heaven from people here on earth.
The Bible refers to the personified Heavenly Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) in feminine terms. Most Christians who are Catholics believe that "God the Father" is masculine and that Jesus was a man; and further, that "the Church" is the female counterpart of God and is the Bride of Jesus.
Some Christians do not agree on this teaching and assert that God subsumes and transcends both masculinity and femininity. From their point of view the grammatical gender used to address the deity is a mere convention, and the masculine designations for the persons of the Trinity characterize a relationship and not gender, per se. However, this is a relatively recent phenomenon, and as such, might have constituted heresy for most of the early history of Christianity.
Some of the Black Madonna icons are believed by some to derive from depictions of ancient goddesses, in particular the Egyptian Goddess Isis with her child Horus sitting on her lap. Medieval images of Mary and Jesus share this similarity, as well.
In many languages, such as Syriac, the word translated "spirit" takes the feminine gender. In early Christian literature in these languages, the Holy Spirit is therefore discussed in feminine terms, especially before c. A.D. 400. Some scholars argue that it was based upon an original goddess figure who was minimized in later traditions.
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon Church) believe in, but do not worship, a Heavenly Mother, the wife and female counterpart—and equal of the Heavenly Father. This belief is not emphasized, however, and adherents pray to the "Father in Heaven."
The Mother Goddess, amalgamated and combined with various feminine figures from world cultures of both the past and present, is worshipped by modern Wiccans and others (see Triple Goddess). The mother goddess is usually viewed as Mother Earth by these groups.
Wiccans and some other types Neo-Pagans worship the Mother Goddess. Most commonly she is worshiped as a Triple Goddess; usually envisioned as the Maiden, Mother, and Crone archetypes. She is associated with the full moon and with Earth. Many ancient Pagan religions had mother goddesses; it has been argued that the figure of Mary the mother of Jesus is patterned on these.
The term "Great Goddess" itself can refer to a mother goddess in some contemporary Neopagan and Wiccan religions
The Earth Mother is a motif that appears in many mythologies. The Earth Mother is a fertile goddess embodying the fertile earth and typically the mother of other deities, and so, also are seen as patronesses of motherhood. This is generally thought of as being because the earth was seen as being the mother from whom all life sprang.
The Rigveda calls the Female power, Mahimata (R.V. 1.164.33), a term which literally means Mother Earth.
In South America, contemporary Andean Indian peoples like quechua and aymara believe in the Mother Earth Pachamama, whose worship cult is found in rural areas and towns at Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Northern Chile and Northwestern Argentina. Andean migrants carried the Pachamama cult to cities and many other extra-Andean places, including the Metropolitan Buenos Aires.
In Gore Vidal's ironic dystopia "Messiah", a new death-worshipping religion sweeps the world and wipes out Christianity. Yet at the conclusion of the book, a woman named Iris, who was among the new religion's founders, starts to be worshipped as a new manifestation of the Mother Goddess, though there was no such concept when the religion was founded. Vidal's point was clearly to show that worship of the Mother Goddess is an immemorial institute and would find a manifestation within whatever religion emerges.
In Robert Graves' 1949 novel Seven Days in New Crete, a mother goddess is central to the religion of a quasi-matriarchal future society.
The Mother Goddess is also thoroughly mentioned throughout the novel The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley.
- Potnia Theron
- Blessed Virgin Mary
- Triple Goddess
- Dolmen deity
- Father God
- Venus figurines
- God (male deity)
- God and gender
- Goddess movement
- Great Goddess, a disambiguation page
- Great Mother, a disambiguation page
- Shitala Devi
- Sky father
- The Hebrew Goddess, by Raphael Patai
- When God Was a Woman, by Merlin Stone
- ^ Peter Ucko (1968) Anthropomorphic Figurines of Predynastic Egypt and Neolithic Crete 
- ^ Venus of Willendorf Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe, 2003
- ^ Sex, Love & Eroticism in Mesopotamian Literature, G, Leick, Routledge, 2003
- ^ Mellaart, James (1967). Catal Huyuk: A Neolithic Town in Anatolia. McGraw-Hill. pp. 181.
- ^ Mellaart (1967), 180.
- ^ Balter, Michael (2005). The Goddess and the Bull. New York: Free Press. pp. 127. ISBN 0-7432-4360-9.
- ^ Hodder, Ian (2005). "New finds and new interpretations at Çatalhöyük". Çatalhöyük 2005 Archive Report. Catalhoyuk Research Project, Institute of Archaeology. http://www.catalhoyuk.com/archive_reports/2005/ar05_01.html.
- ^ Hodder, Ian (2008-01-17). "A Journey to 9000 years ago". http://www.turkishdailynews.com.tr/article.php?enewsid=93856. Retrieved 2008-08-07.
- ^ O'Brien, Jeremy "New techniques undermine 'mother goddess' role in the community" Irish Times September 20, 2009 
- ^ O'Brien, Jeremy "New techniques undermine 'mother goddess' role in the community" Irish Times September 20, 2009
- ^ "The goddesses of Greek polytheism, so different and complementary," Walter Burkert has observed, in Homo Necans (1972) 1983:79f, "are nonetheless, consistently similar at an earlier stage, with one or the other simply becoming dominant in a sanctuary or city. Each is the Great Goddess presiding over a male society; each is depicted in her attire as Mistress of the Beasts, and Mistress of the Sacrifice, even Hera and Demeter."
- ^ The description of them as multiple breasts or bull testicles seem mistaken: see Temple of Artemis.
- ^ Germania, ch. 40.
- ^ Viktor Waschnitius, Perht, Holda, und vervandte Gestalten in Akademie der Wissenschaften. (1913-14); Lotte Motz, The Beauty and the Hag (1993)
- ^ Jakob Grimm, Deutsche Mythologie (1835), J. Stalleybrass tr.
- ^ Rudolf Simek, Dictionary of Northern Mythology (1984).
- ^ Davidson, Hilda R. Ellis. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe (1964) ISBN 0-14-013627-4
- ^ Yashoda and Krishna
- ^ Harvey, Susan Ashbrook (August , 2006). "Women in the Syrian Tradition: Part 2 - Holy Images". The Syriac Orthodox Christian Digest Volume 2, Issue 9. http://www.socdigest.org/articles/08aug06.html. Retrieved 2007-03-15.
- ^ Smith, Joseph F. (1909). Man: Origin and Destiny. pp. 348–355.
- Marija Gimbutas. The language of the Goddess. Harpercollins (1989). ISBN 0-06-250356-1
- Neumann, Erich. (1991). The Great Mother. Bollingen; Repr/7th edition. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ. ISBN 0-691-01780-8.
- J.F. del Giorgio. The Oldest Europeans. A.J. Place (2006). ISBN 980-6898-00-1
- Goldin, Paul R. (2002) "On the Meaning of the Name Xi wangmu, Spirit-Mother of the West." Paul R. Goldin. Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 122, No. 1/January-March 2002, pp. 83–85.
- Prof. P.C. Jain: Conception and Evolution of The Mother Goddess in India 2004
- Knauer, Elfried R.(2006)"The Queen Mother of the West: A Study of the Influence of Western Prototypes on the Iconography of the Taoist Deity." In: Contact and Exchange in the Ancient World. Ed. Victor H. Mair. University of Hawai'i Press. Pp. 62–115. ISBN ISBN 978-0-8248-2884-4; ISBN ISBN 0-8248-2884-4